Lal Babu - The pusher of Benares

I've sold thousands of those!

I started my ‘business career’ in the 1970’s with macrame lampshades from India. We were selling them quite successfully on West Berlin’s flea market. The first batch I bought on Jan Path in New Delhi but later we found a reliable supplier in Benares: Lal Babbu! He was in his early 30s and a tout had taken us to his shop in downtown, not far from the Ganga River. A very nice guy who served us cardamom tea and cookies which we enjoyed a lot. Moreover, he had a good command of English and his prices were unmatched. It didn’t take long until a brisk trade was blossoming between Benares and Berlin. In the beginning it was limited to lampshades but later we bought other things, too: brightly coloured wooden toys, leather belts that started to smell once they got wet, chillums and whatever we thought we’d be able to sell.

In the beginning we mailed the parcels ourselves. Generally, for many travelers India is a book with seven seals as we say in German. But what is a book with seven seals compared to an Indian postal parcel? Nuttin’! When we arrived at the stairs of the post office with our neatly packed parcels we were surrounded by a bunch of people who wanted to ‘pack our parcels’. We told them that our parcels were absolutely o.k. but they kept gesticulating and shouting. I told them to get lost and went to the parcel counter. „We want to send this to Germany, please!“. The counter clerk looked at me disapprovingly and raised his eyebrows: „Young man! I cannot accept a parcel like this – it is not properly packed!” – „Hey, what’s wrong with our parcels? Even in Germany this would be perfectly o.k.!” – „Maybe, but this is not Germany. Please go outside and have your parcels packed properly. Then come back!” We couldn’t believe it but had no choice, as it seemed. So we went out and learned how to pack a parcel properly in India. First of all it had to be sewn into white canvas. Then we needed to put red lacquer seals on the seams. If I recall correctly every 5 cms. But not any seal! It had to be forgery-proof. In our case a one deutschmark coin was sufficient. This whole humbug obviously served the purpose of enabling a mob of self-appointed tailors and sealing wax sellers to prey on their customers.

That's the way you do it!

We had to agree to an exorbitant price but finally we went back to the counter, proud as peacocks. „Here you go!“ – „O.K. thank you, but first you’ll have to fill these customs forms!” My god, will this never end? We filled in the parcel label and the ‚Customs Declaration Form’: passport number, nationality and of course recipient and sender. Three copies each. These stickers we had to fix to each parcel, one glued, one stitched. On a desk I saw a paper cup with glue. Its content stirred up memories of the paper cup in which my grandfather who suffered from TB disposed of his sputum. A disgusting green slime! I plucked up all my courage, dipped my finger into it and spread it over the back side of the form. Back to the counter. „Are you tourists?“ asked the clerk with a severe view at us. „Yes!“ – „Then please write ‘bona fide tourist’ on the form!”. O.K., done!

„And what are the contents?“ the nosy man demanded to know. „Just souvenirs!“ we answered with one voice as we could imagine that he’d give us trouble if we’d say something else. Then something came to my mind: „Err, Sir, please: Is it possible to insure the parcel? According to the form it is only insured up to a value of 1000 Rupees!” – „Absolutely no problem: Just go to a bank and get a bank clearing certificate!”. „Bank clearing certificate? For what? It’s just a parcel”. „Well, Sir, such is the procedure!”. I gave up and after nearly two hours we were finished! And here’s the best: Our parcels actually arrived! Even though I have to admit that half of the contents were broken. However: That’s what I call reliability! Looking back, I’m still wondering how we managed to pass these products to our customers. I guess our enthusiasm must have been infectious. 

Lal Babbu had mastered the art of writing absolutely charming business letters. I’ve kept them for a long time until I forgot them when I moved house one day: „You are a good chain to us and we believe that surely we can do a lot in business if we run shoulder to shoulder with a too clear heart and keen desire for a bright future!” He also knew what westerners wanted: The true, genuine India! So he invited us occasionally for dinner on the roof

terrace of his house. His wife (or the maid?) prepared dinner and his kid was sitting on my lap. Very ‘gemuetlich’ as we say in Germany and it gave me the feeling of being a part of it. We accepted the resulting diarrhea with the shrug of our shoulders. And so we spent many nice hours in his shop and his house. What struck me as strange was his betel chewing: Somehow it looked disgusting when the quid nearly fell out of his mouth while he talked to us.

Beautiful bottles!

One day I arrived in Benares and went straight to our supplier’s shop to place some orders. To my astonishment it was closed. I asked around in the neighbourhood but nobody was able or willing to tell me something. Finally I managed to get hold of him on the phone. He invited me to come for dinner at 7 p. m. Sharp! He’d be waiting for me! Fine with me, heaven knows what kind of tales from Arabian nights were behind his request. And indeed, at 7 p.m. the gate opened as if by magic and he hurriedly pulled me into his yard. There I saw an old-fashioned contraption and he told me that it produced green and brown plastic bottles. As durable as ugly. He told me that he had moved into the plastic bottle business where one could make millions in no time! I was flabbergasted!

During dinner the truth came out. After some humming and hawing it became clear that Lal Babbu wasn’t a souvenir dealer but a pusher! As in Steppenwolf’s song ‘The pusher’: ‚You know, the dealer is a man with the love grass in his pockets but the pusher is a monster!’ I was shocked! Certainly there must have been a misunderstanding! But finally he came out with the truth: He told me that one of his business acquaintances some time ago had asked him for a little favour: to procure one kg of morphine for him. And just in order to help his friend he had provided it for him in good turn. This happened a few times, small amounts like one or two kg. He didn’t make a single rupee profit! One day his friend introduced him to a German who asked him if he could supply two kg of morphine for him. In order to do his friend a favour he agreed. It didn’t take long until the German came back and praised his morphine to the skies. And then the guy ordered 27 kg! “No way!“ said Lal Babbu, “That stuff is too risky for me!”. But the German kept pestering him and offered him a price that he could not resist. Finally he agreed! That German was to blame, definitely! After all, he made a little profit this time. When he handed over the drugs he was in for an unpleasant surprise: Suddenly the whole place was swarming with policemen! He had fallen for a decoy’s line – BKA! Bundeskriminalamt! They put him in jail and Lal Babbu – not the most physical guy – was brutally beaten up and manhandled. His rich father paid a high bribe to the police and got him out of jail the next day. From then on things were not the same anymore. He told me that he had operated a morphine kitchen on his roof terrace. I nearly felt sorry for him! However, this would be over soon, he assured me. But this time I’d have to look for another supplier of lampshades. “No problem!‘ I told him. But the police didn’t let him off the hook. They closed his shop, took away all his money and the house. At least they allowed him to stay at his house for rent and he started the plastic bottle business. His father, too, lost all his money trying to save his son. Only later I realized how lucky we had been not to get involved. I’m sure our shipments from Benares were of great interest for the police and the customs. But as we were not involved and had no idea of his wheelings and dealings we got away! Most probably, the whole souvenir business was just window dressing for his drug business.

A few years later I happened to be in Benares again. I was curious to know what had become of him and went to his house. He was lying completely stoned under a mobile stand and didn’t recognize me. His wife was selling peanuts and vegetable oil in little bottles. His father had committed suicide or died of grief as far as I remember. This punishment seemed very ‘Indian’ and effective to me. In the West he’d probably been gone to jail for a 

few years and then it would probably have been business as usual again. Instead, they destroyed his very existence and when they had taken everything away from him they left him alone. I have no idea what has become of him but I guess he’s long gone as he was a drug addict himself. Maybe he was reincarnated as a street dog – that’s what you get if you ‘try to help a friend in need’!